So much has been said about Red Dead Redemption 2 since its original release that it's hard to find something new to add. But having now spent a considerable amount of time with the game - completing every single aspect, encounter and mission, plus racking up some hours in Red Dead Online - here's our take.
We're throwing our two pennies worth into the large brimmed hat and giving you our perspective on one of the best games of the last 12 months - maybe even this console generation - and explain why, if you haven't already, you need to visit this particular rodeo.
The first Red Dead Redemption has been our favourite Rockstar game for many years - so a sequel was always welcome round these parts. We must admit that once we found out Red Dead 2 would be a prequel, however, that we were a touch disappointed. Like many others we wanted the continuing adventures of John's son, Jack Marsden, to continue.
However, it didn't take long into the game to put our minds at rest. Rockstar's decision to pin the sequel on John's gang buddy Arthur Morgan instead is inspired. His gruff and grizzly nature makes for a great, rounded main protagonist. And his story, without giving away any spoilers, becomes much more poignant and layered than we could ever have hoped for.
This makes for, in our humble opinion, Rockstar's finest piece of storytelling to date. Although you do really have to stick with it initially - as it doesn't really get going until you are eight to 10 hours in. Even then the pace doesn't ramp up much, but by the time you notice you are so engrossed it really doesn't matter. Kind of like the best TV series you've ever watched.
19th Century escapades
Setting the game 12 years before the first Red Dead occurred might have been a worry for us beforehand, but it turns out to have been necessity as we wouldn't have got the grittier Wild West theme otherwise. Considering John Marston's original story ends in 1911 and the epilogue takes place in 1914, it would coincide with the first World War and a more technologically advanced, civilised America.
Thus 1899 is a far better period choice. It provides a better Western adventure setting than even the first game achieved, one of pulp fiction novels and movies. So making this a prequel was an obvious compromise. And it is a far better game for it.
It also turns out to be better for newcomers who haven't had the pleasure of playing the excellent original Redemption. Considering it was an Xbox 360 and PS3 title, many new console owners may never have even heard of it.
The good news in that case is that they don't need to. It is available as an Xbox backward compatible game or on PS Now for PS4 users, but you don't have to pick it up to get on board with the sequel.
Those who do remember Rockstar's former Western great will find plenty of small in-jokes and some essential background to faintly remembered events. Everybody wins.
The game itself plays similar to the original, with an enormous, unfolding open-world map, However, combat has been tweaked to make for more tangible, visceral gun fights. It is easy to control, with the same sort of duck and cover mechanics used in Grand Theft Auto titles, and it's just, well, fun.
Mano a mano shoot outs are different this time around, with a more refined slow-motion quick draw system that owes much to the original Red Dead Revolver that started the franchise but, to be honest, it's possibly the least fun part of combat. Running headlong through streets, shotgun in hand and escaping from a botched bank robbery - that's where RDR2's combat shines most. We get goosebumps just thinking about them.
Of course, all Rockstar open-world games are about much more than combat and missions, they are about an enormous amount of variety in play and this time the developer has really gone to town. There is so much to do in Red Dead 2 that you can extend the 60 hour completion time to 80 hours or more.
Fishing and hunting, playing poker, blackjack or dominoes are welcome distractions (as some of them were in the first), but there is much more than that on top. As you are part of a shifting collection of outlaws, led by Dutch van der Linde, there is also micro management in keeping the camp ticking over.
Some might say that there's actually too much to worry about and perform, but Rockstar cleverly makes most of it optional. You might not get as much ammo or equipment upgrades if you ignore all the extras, but you can go through the game without engaging with them too often. That's great game design right there, giving you the sandbox and letting you play however you want (unlike in Fallout 4, which was one of its major issues).
Goes on and on
Even beyond the side and main missions, there are plenty of encounters in the world. However, this is where one of the caveats raises its head: the sheer size of the map and time it takes to traverse the lands.
Having the biggest open-world map of any of the studio's games and just a horse to travel on, it can take a considerable amount of time to get between far reaching locations. Yes, you can fast-travel between some places once you have discovered them. And yes, you can even set the horse-riding exploits to a cinematic mode that does it automatically for you, but if you do you'll miss some of the best, funniest, cutest, most poignant segments in the game. There might be a man bitten by a snake, for example, and you'll just completely miss him if you automatically whizz on by.
We're all for bigger maps but it does come at a price, it seems: it's another mechanic that ends up slowing the pace of the game further.
Don't get us wrong though, the minor foibles are exactly that: minor. We also encountered a few graphical glitches along the way and we're not overly enamoured by the honour system, which rewards good or bad honour depending on your actions but is ultimately a little too random and irrelevant.
However, in all other aspects Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece. Bar the tiniest of stutters, the graphical presentation is jaw-droppingly amazing. The Wild West has never looked so Wild nor, er, Westier. It is at its best on an Xbox One X in a full 4K resolution, but the PS4 Pro version almost matches it, and all consoles sing when delivered such a finely crafted visual feast.
Online extends play
That rings true for Red Dead Online too. Like with GTA IV, Rockstar added an all-new multiplayer game soon after launch, playable for free (with unessential in-game purchases), and it doesn't just give you something else to play, it adds an all-new dimension.
There are missions for teams and single-players, plus multiple game modes that are being expanded on all the time. It is still a work in progress and constant updates add new gameplay and tweaks, mostly based on community feedback, and we thoroughly approve.
It's a great addition that extends the play life of a Red Dead Redemption 2 purchase greatly. We particularly enjoy the Gun Rush battle royale style mode, but if that's not your cup of char, something else will undoubtedly suit your tastes.
Not that the main game needed another excuse to recommend it, but Online is another massive tick in its bulging box.
We're not the first, and certainly won't be the last, to wax lyrical about a Rockstar game, but by golly is Red Dead Redemption 2 a mighty fine experience.
It's a stunning return to the Wild West for the developer, and proves once more that it is just as capable outside the world of modern-day crime and supercar capers.
Where this particular game perhaps impresses most though is in its deeply involving, heart-filled story that lives with you long after the last bullet is fired. And with Red Dead Online then waiting for you to carry on your adventures it offers more than many triple-A games put together.
Simply superb. Art, in fact.
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